In episode 17 we talk with Anna Kessel about the role of sport within society, what makes a high performing story, and what motivates her campaigning drive. We also hear her thoughts about how journalism has changed over the past 15 years.
Anna Kessel is a sports journalist, acclaimed author and vocal campaigner on equality in sport.
A rare example of a female journalist in her field, Anna published Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Your Life (Macmillan) in 2016, a passionate polemic aimed at bringing sport to the female masses.
A Guardian and Observer journalist since 2004, Anna has covered three Olympic Games, several World Cups, Euros and World Championships, and interviewed some of the biggest stars in global sport.
Co-founder and chair of Women in Football (WiF), an organization lobbying against sexism in the game and championing female role models, The Independent described her as a “fearless adversary of sexism” in their list of the 50 Most Influential Women in Sport.
In 2016 Anna was awarded an MBE for services to journalism and women in sport.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 1.6.17 – Ep 17. Anna Kessel MBE – Journalist and campaigner on the power of sport.
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to A Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.[Music]
This morning I’m with leading sports journalist, Anna Kessel. We talk about the role of sport within society, what makes a high performing story and what motivates her campaigning drive. I began the conversation though by asking her to reflect on the changes she’d experienced in journalism over the past fifteen years.
A: From 2004 to now journalism itself has changed as well as I have changed as a person and a journalist. When I started out newspapers were still black and white. Our newspaper was printed on that really large size format where you have it spread it out across the table. When the Guardian and the Observer first started talking about doing this kind of tabloid version, it was quite controversial. “Oh my goodness, is this the right thing to do because a tabloid means something else doesn’t it.” Then going to colour, that was very exciting. The early days of the Website too which when I first started out I was in work experience so I was doing some shift work at night on the Guardian Sport Website, was very much manual elements of uploading stories from the newspaper onto the Website. They barely gave us that technology.
Now it seems that things have moved on so much where it’s Web first, paper second in many ways. We’re asking these questions about what is the future of newspapers, what is journalism, how is it funded, what does it look like, what does it do, do features have any value anymore or is it all about new stories because everybody is consuming journalism on social media and therefore it’s bite-sized Tweets. What place does some sport in journalism have? So we’re in a very different place.
T: What would you say then is a high performing story or what must a story offer to you to make you interested in it?
A: Well, ah, those are two different things I think sometimes. A high performing story – go on the Guardian’s Sport Website and look at the ten most read stories, most of them will probably be Premier League Football and then it’s gonna be League Football. Those will be the high performance stories. There might be some exceptions. Sometimes a Rhonda Rousey story might have made it into that top ten or maybe a Serena Williams, maybe when she was pregnant that was up there or a drug story in athletics. It’s got to be something pretty extraordinary to break that monopoly that the Men’s Premier League Football has over those most read figures. That’s really hard for everyone actually. It’s hard for someone who is passionate about Woman’s Sport but it’s also hard if you’re a massive Men’s Rugby League fan and you’re not getting the kind of coverage that you want. Maybe you’re a winter sports fan or field hockey. There are lots of sports fans who are frustrated by that state of affairs.
T: So going to you more personally, what must a story offer to you to make you interested to write it?
A: I’m really interested in things that are meaningful beyond sport. If it’s only relevant within the sporting arena, that could still be really interesting and exciting but for me if it can resonate to people who don’t even like sport, then that’s something really powerful. That’s where sport connects with the rest of the world and that’s where I think sports power lies and it takes on its transformative quality which I find really exciting but that’s me personally. It doesn’t necessarily have to be when talk about, “Oh is it a human story.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be that but there might be other things that resonate with the rest of the world.
T: Is that what motivated you to write your book?
A: Yeah, I think it was because initially when we talked about, “Would you write a book about Women’s Sport” and I said “Yeah.” Then I thought about my friends and my Mum and people who watch Wimbledon or watch the World Cup, and then they wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as massive sports fans. That made me feel sad to think that they might not want to read it or they might think they wouldn’t want to read it. So maybe if I could convince them to get interested in sport, what would that do, what function would that have and how exciting would that be. So that’s kind of the direction that the book took. That was also true to me because I grew up not being a massive sport fan. I grew up bunking PE lessons. So it felt more authentic to start from that place.
T: How does someone who’s not really a massive sports fan [laugh] become a leading sports journalist? Can you explain that to me?
A: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I think Euro ’96 had a lot to do with it. Well I don’t know if that exceeds everything when Euro ’96 happens and it just gripped the nation and it felt like it was for everybody. I think Ian Wright of Arsenal had quite a lot to do with it as well because again that felt what he was doing at Arsenal, I felt like I could be a part of that. I went to a Girls’ School and most of the school were Arsenal fans. So it felt like it was our thing as much as anybody else’s and that felt important. Certainly I didn’t know how to play football. I didn’t even know the finer points of the…stats or anything at that point in my life but I think it was just that all embracing nature. Then, like I said, being passionate about writing and sport and then wanting to be able to combine the two and being quite interested that when I read the newspapers there weren’t that many women writing about sport. I read Amy Lawrence’s stuff and there was another one called Amy Raphael. Their writing actually stood out. Not just because they were women, but because the way they were writing spoke to me and I felt a connection to it. I thought, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I would be interested in trying to do that too.” I wondered what my sports writing would look like.
T: Is it different being a woman in sport journalism? Are there different challenges, do you think?
A: Yeah, that’s such a hard question because you come back to that whole, are women different from men and are we going to stereotype about what women are like? Sometimes that can be quite uncomfortable to talk about because we don’t all have the same experience as women in sports journalism and yet some of us do. Some things bind us together and some things are very different. So I would say that Sport Journalism is a really challenging zone or environment and it can be really difficult to be one a woman in it, definitely. Other people might not describe it like that. Also other people may have had similar experiences or perhaps sexism or just those kinds of barriers to women but they might not interpret it in the same way that I do. Not interpret it they not experience it in the same way. It might not be a problem for them or they might have other priorities in their life. So I always find that difficult to say what is a woman’s experience but yeah, overall and certainly when you look across that surface, you know, women in football surveys and things like that. The majority of woman is saying that football certainly is a pretty abrasive environment to be in.
T: Any recommendations as far as if there’s a woman out there listening to this who wants to get into it, any recommendations that you might give her?
A: I think the biggest one is to make contact and try and find yourself a mentor who will look after you and who can be on the end of the phone for advice. You can call up and say, “Oh I went to a Press Conference today and I asked a question and the manager, you know, the way he responded. Was that normal or was there something wrong with my question or is it okay that I sat at the back, should I sit in the front?” You know all those tiny details.
T: So a sounding board.
A: A sounding board, yeah. Was it okay that I wore pink jeans and pixie boots to [unclear 0:08:50] United. Does it matter, [laugh] does anybody care? Should I be worried about what I dress in? All these tiny little things that I think for me I probably really didn’t have… Yeah, I could have done with somebody to talk about that stuff with and then just not have to think about it and be like, “Yeah, I know exactly what I’m doing. I’m just gonna do what I need to do for myself and that’s the most important thing.”
T: Let’s go back to you getting into Sports Journalism. You spoke about Arsenal and the Euro’s and so forth. What seemed to be important was this idea of belonging. Sport gave somewhere to belong to. Is that what sport is for? So as a sports journalist, what would you say is the point of sport?
A: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think a lot of people feel that it is about belonging. A lot of people spoke about that when I did interviews for the book and I think that can be a really powerful thing. I’m just thinking with so many different hats on and thinking about interviewing Jewish fans and how they feel about the Y-word chants at Tottenham. They talk about their culture and identity being embraced at football. How important that is in the historical context and that is a safe space for them where they feel part of the community and those kinds of things.
I think differently for me, there was something about joining that main stream and coming from a background which was quite unusual. You know, my parents came from two different countries and arrived here without much money. We grew up in a Council flat but we didn’t…we weren’t a working class family in that sort of white working class way. My parents were educated and so on. So we didn’t really fit in basically. We didn’t really fit into any boxes and that was quite weird. My parents didn’t go to pubs and they certainly didn’t go to sports. Their food was a bit funny and their accents were a bit funny and nothing really fitted.
I think in sports when it’s good, it’s a place that can be really welcoming. I’m thinking particularly of an interview I did with the one called Chris Power-offs who runs the Spurs Lilywhites. She’s an important figure in the LGBT movement in football. She talked about when her wife died actually. They were Spurs significantly older for years and then the fans that sit around that they saw week in week out, had never seen them outside of football but they knew their habits infinitely. They knew when they’d go to the toilet. They knew what they’d order at the bar. When her wife passed away, they then came to the funeral. I was really moved when she told me about that. It was something about they were there at that moment when she need them most, when she was at her most vulnerable. It was very powerful what she said about that. The rest of the time, whether you’re gonna socialise with a few people or not, like whatever. I guess they weren’t really interested in doing that but when it matters, that’s when they were there.
T: It sounds like a family.
A: I found that quite extraordinary. Yes, yeah, very much so. For a lot of us, what family is has changed over the years. We used to all live with our extended families in the same home or in the same street or even in the same town. That doesn’t really happen anymore. So maybe sport has become even more important in our new version of family.
T: You’ve gone beyond just being a spectator of sport and a journalist of sport to actually campaigning quite a lot as well. You’ve helped set up Women in Football. You’ve now started the Blue Plaque Rebellion. What drives you to campaign?
A: I think a lot of things. Being part of sports journalism and taking part in that environment and seeing inequality was pretty hard. There was only so long that I could sit on my hands and not feel like; women are a minority here, why don’t we get together, what we don’t start having a conversation, let’s just bring some women together. When I started to do that, realising that there was some resistance actually from the infra-structure of sport to that very concept, it made me realise that it was even more important to do. Also the appetite was there from so many other women. They very quickly said, “Yes, I want to be a part of this and I’m happy to donate every spare minute I have so generously.” That was part of it.
I think reporting on sport means that you’re kind of detached from it in a way and I wanted to maybe be more involved and not just report on inequality but actually do something to help it. I’m listening to other people’s stories of their struggles but I’m just writing it down. That’s important and it’s important how you then communicate it and doing so in a responsible way but was there more that I could do. That was definitely part of it.
I think being married to somebody who is a campaigner particularly around race and equality means that a lot of conversations in our house are about that so that was quite natural. I think also just growing up with my own family history. My Dad’s from South Africa and he’s Jewish and so visiting South Africa as a kid and seeing Apartheid as a nine year old I mean that’s very, very stark reality then visiting a township aged nine and seeing how other people live. I’ll never forget flying into South Africa for the very first time and looking out the window and saying, “Oh wow Dad, everyone’s got a swimming pool here,” just seeing these hundreds of little turquoise spots everywhere. My Dad’s face when I looked at him and said that, he just said to me, “No, not everyone has a swimming pool here. Only some people have a swimming pool here.” The expression on his face was just, you know, something else. It wasn’t even the words it was just the picture on his face that said so much. So from a young age it’s been something that’s been important to me.
T: Do you think the campaigns you’re involved in are successful?
A: In a lot of ways, yeah. There are successful. Is there more that we could do? Yeah, loads. [Laughs.] There are loads more that we could do. Have we done well with the resources that we’ve had and the small amount of money that we’ve had? Yeah, I think definitely we’ve done more than… We’ve overachieved. I hate that word because it sounds really management who speak but I think we have and some of the messages that we’ve received from women who we’ve helped, has been really meaningful. Whether it was a problem in their workplace with their jobs, whether it was about giving them more confident, whether it was about getting them a job or putting them in touch with somebody else who was like-minded or just making it okay for them to say “Oh do you know what, I’m having a really had time. Is this normal? Is everybody having a hard time?
So all of that feedback that we get is really significant and important but yeah, at the same time, at the end of each day I think, “Oh we haven’t done enough. There is so much more that we could be doing.” I’m sure you have exactly the same.
T: It’s a bit of a naughty question of me to ask a campaigner whether they are successful or not.
A: Yeah. Well yeah because you’re never gonna really feel that you cracked it till everybody’s happy and no longer facing discrimination. That’s probably never gonna happen in my lifetime but I get the fact that…
T: [Over speaking.] That’s also is the thing that’s probably driving you to do more?
A: [Laughs.] Yes, it is. Yeah, it is but it’s really satisfying that when we started there was not a conversation about women’s equality in the football industry. Now there’s a very, very established conversation around that and there’s mechanisms in place to help women. So that’s a big jump.
T: What cogs need to be working together to make those sort of changes that you’re talking about?
A: I think the most important cogs are the ones who are at home and think I want to do something about this and then they just leave their house one morning and do it. What I’ve realised is that there are many great people within institutions and organisations and structures who want to help and who want to do things but they’re always bound by their own structure. It’s very difficult for them to operate outside that structure. Sometimes when they do, they actually end up getting into trouble because they might even break the rules of their own structure. Then ultimately they lose their position and order. All those sorts of things go on. It’s really, really hard for people to make change within those structures.
So I think we need more people like Women in Football, like the Women’s Sports Trust who just set up their own. It has a different perspective and that doesn’t mean that we should give up on the organisations. We shouldn’t and they do have a responsibility to do lots of important things and we need to keep pushing them. I think it works really well in tandem. So just not leave it to the establishment but do bring a different voice to the party and work together in that way I think is really productive.
T: This podcast is about performance so I suppose before I give you some quick fire questions, I just want to ask you that or that success question again or performance question again. What is high performance or success for you personally?
A: Those words don’t really mean anything to me. [Laughs.]
A: They feel like somebody else’s words. [Tape distortion, unclear 0:18:45-0:18:50] Lots of people talk about high performance and success and one of the matrix around that and should somebody get the funding, should somebody get the medal. Those kinds of conversations. I don’t feel that they apply to me. I’m not really whinging about success when I’m doing my work [laughs].
T: [Over speaking.] If you were to redefine them?
A: Well, I think for me it’s about satisfaction. Maybe that’s my level of success about feeling satisfied, about feeling content, about feeling happy. Those are my measurements and trying to balance my life as an individual, what my feelings are, my life as a mother and wife and a family and how that works and how everybody’s feeling in that. Then what am I doing in the world of work and do I feel good about that. If I can feel good about those three things at the end of each day, then that’s an amazing day.
T: Fantastic. Okay, just a few quick fire questions for you now, Anna. What did you eat for breakfast?
A: Oh, some toast blueberries and strawberries.
T: Favourite piece of kit?
A: Piece of kit?
T: Yeah, so it could be sports kit but if you don’t actually play sports, a favourite piece of kit of some sort.
A: Oh, well I guess my laptop although it is a joy and a burden.
T: [Laughs.] I can understand that. Sporting hero?
A: Ah, oh that’s hard.
T: So many.
A: So many.
A: Oh my goodness.
T: The first one that goes to mind.
A: So many at different points. I remember crying at Christine Ohuruogu’s success. I remember crying in the women qualifying to their first World Cup in 2006 and being there in that qualifying game in France. Just to get any…ah, yeah, those…that lot.
T: So many. Most useless piece of advice you’ve been given or given to somebody else?
A: Do you know, it wasn’t a piece of advice but I remember earlier on a colleague said to me in a sort of testing way, “How many words a day can you write?” I didn’t know. I didn’t know how many words a day I could write. Then they said, “How quickly can you write two thousand words?” I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was twenty-five and I’d only been in the industry about six weeks and I said, “Oh, maybe two hours.” They looked a bit worried and so I thought, “I don’t know, maybe that was a bit over-ambitious. I don’t think I could write two thousand words in two hours.” Anyway I thought about this and I still think about this conversation and I think that was so pointless, that meant nothing. Writing two thousand words as fast as you can is meaningless in general pretty much because it’s the content. It’s not how many words you can write.
A: Yeah and it was a bloke that asked me that and I always think I wonder if he thought that was what he was meant to be doing and if that was the yardstick by which he was successful. No, it’s nonsense.
T: Greatest passion outside of sport?
A: Oh, that’s hard. I guess my children, if that doesn’t sound too cheesy.
T: No, not at all.
A: Yeah, they are and we’re a family. They are my greatest passion and my greatest love.
T: And the last question, best performance enhancer?
A: Oh wow, definitely being physically active, doing some exercise, doing some sport. That just clears your brain and lifts the stress. It is magic stuff.
T: Thanks so much for talking with me this morning, Anna. I really appreciate it.
A: Thank you for having me.
T: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionnofperformance.com.
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